Friday, 17 June 2011

Tongue tied

One situation where I always feel totally at sea is funerals. Not having lost anyone precious to me, not having seriously grieved, I'm never quite sure what to say to the relatives.

An expression of sympathy? Some comforting words? The hope that they'll find the strength to cope? An appreciation of the person who's gone? Some fond memories? Whatever comes into my head seems somehow inappropriate or trite or idiotic.

If I had been through profound grief myself, I could draw on my own experience to say something suitable, something that might actually help. Though even then, people's experiences of grief can be dramatically different and very personal, and what helps one person can be totally irrelevant to another.

I remember a particularly embarrassing funeral where the mourners actually queued to offer their condolences to the relatives, and by the time it was my turn I was just a bag of nerves discarding one inept remark after another.

To have not joined the queue at all and discreetly disappeared would have been seen as grossly disrespectful, yet the fumbling and clumsy contribution I actually made probably sounded disrespectful and insincere in itself.

The irony was that I had genuine affection for the person who'd died and had always enjoyed his company immensely. He was one of those larger than life characters who enlivened any gathering and had a cracking sense of humour. But when confronted with the grieving relatives, I didn't know what to say or how to express my feelings about him.

So if I'm ever sunk in grief, and you have no idea what to say to me, I shall completely understand.

Pic from the film "Death At A Funeral"

41 comments:

Rummuser said...

I find writing condolence letters easier and when in person, I just mark my presence and do not say anything at all. There is really no need to as the grieving person does understand that you share the grief.

Miss Scarlet said...

I had genuine affection for the person who'd died and had always enjoyed his company immensely. He was one of those larger than life characters who enlivened any gathering and had a cracking sense of humour.

I will say this next time I am in the same situation. Thank you, Nick, I have been similarly flummoxed.
Sx

speccy said...

There are no words to make things better, so any words at all will do.

At my father's wake the coffin was in the bedroom. Stuck for words, one man shook my mother's hand and said 'We've got a headboard just like that'. The poor man was mortified, but my mum nodded politely before escaping the room and collapsing in stitches laughing. We were all buoyed by that :)

Nick said...

Ramana - But do they understand you share the grief unless you actually say something to that effect? Surely a lot of people (especially in Northern Ireland) only attend funerals because they're expected to?

Scarlet - That's quite a speech to deliver, but maybe a shortened version?

The trouble with comments like that is that so many people produce totally false eulogies that even a genuine one can sound false. Though maybe not if the emotion shows through.

Nick said...

Speccy - What a wonderful story! I'm sure if I'd been the relative I would have been in stitches as well! But yes, the poor man must have kicked himself a dozen times.

Mr VeryVeryBored said...

Agreed, arguably the most awkward of situations. I too have yet to go through the grief mill so have nothing to call upon from within.

Avoid:

(a) how lovely to see you again
(b) any ideas where [the deceased] is?
(c) sorry, and you are?

Headboard it is then.

Nick said...

Very Very Bored - They sound just the ticket, I'll try one of those. Oh sorry, those are the ones to AVOID. I should probably also avoid "That looks exactly like real teak. Is it from B&Q?"

Nick said...

Seriously though, VVB, have you ever made any horribly inappropriate remarks at someone's funeral?

Macy said...

Nick - The relatives aren't going to remember anything you say anyway (unless you say something fantastically wrong like Specy's story). The fact that you turned up, and muttered condolences, is , seriously, all that's needed.

Nick said...

Macy - Useful advice, I'll remember that. You've had all the grief that I haven't had yet.

wendy house said...

Diffrent people deal with grief in different ways. Why try and second guess - ask them what they'd prefer, they're probably experiencing all sorts of different treatments and will be releived to be able to say what suits them best... normally works for me. My Uncle (like and older brother)'s wake was awesome. We all got drunk, laughed and cired in the same sentences and told outrageous stories about his life.

Nick said...

Wendy - That sort of riotous and uninhibited wake seems to be quite common. I guess it does people a lot more good than a solemn, po-faced occasion where everyone's nursing their sense of loss.

conortje said...

I like how the Dutch do it. They simply wish someone 'sterkte' or strength. It's all you can do really for someone in mourning I believe. At my father's funeral I was at the end of that long line of people offering sympathy and I hated every second of it. I just found the whole thing kind of funny - all these people I didn't know condoling me. Someone even shook my hand and informed me they were there representing their brother. Funerals are surreal at the best of times...

Nick said...

Conor - Wishing someone strength sounds about right. Interesting that you found being at the end of the line just as awful as waiting in the queue. There must come a point when you think "Okay, I've had all the condolences I need, can I go home and get pissed now?"

Baino said...

Having lost many who are close to me, well three, it's a tough call but I agree with the paragraph quoted by Miss Scarlet, that's all you need to say. Our funerals tend to turn into a weird kind of party catching up with people we haven't seen for ages, sadly many never resurface again until the next one. I think it's more important to be around for the remaining living frankly. Over 300 people came to my husband's funeral and so many have since been lost to me, such a shame, I could have done with their support months later. No queues for me, just come back to the house and get pissed.

Wisewebwoman said...

Nick:
I have found the old Irish saying of "sorry for your trouble" the absolutely best kind of offering I make to the bereaved. Co-incidentally, I just returned from the (packed) funeral home where the father of the deceased held my cold hand in his warm one for a long time and after I said the above, he looks at me intently and says: "I've been meaning to talk to you about that front light of yours, is it on a dimmer, how does it work like that?"

So we talked lights 'n electrical stuff and then he says:

"My father never drank, I never drank and my son, lying over there, drank enough for all three of us. How do you figure that?"

I am so glad I went and said my usual piece. And so well meant. It covers everything.

XO
WWW

nursemyra said...

I left a comment here yesterday Nick. Is it in your spam?

Nick said...

Baino - Wakes in Ireland tend to be pretty wild occasions too, and as you say people often disappear entirely until the next wake. I agree, offering support to those still alive is the important thing. Dealing with 300 people must have been pretty overwhelming.

W3 - Indeed, "Sorry for your trouble" is what people here tend to say (trouble meaning death, of course, as in The Troubles). I love the surreal conversation about the dimmer switch.

Nick said...

Myra - Very sorry about that. No, nothing in my spam box, must be another Blogger tantrum. Can you bear to write the comment again? I know you've had your share of grief as well.

Cheerful Monk said...

A simple, "I'm so sorry" would probably be enough. I have lost dear ones myself, and my favorite comment was after I returned home after the funeral. An acquaintance said, "I heard about your mother. I thought about sending you a sympathy card, but I didn't." That was good for a laugh.

secret agent woman said...

Definitely, "I'm very sorry for your loss" or just, "I'm so sorry." I remember an uncle saying to me at my brother's funeral, "It was for the best." I was too stunned to react, but I should have punched him.

Grannymar said...

Nick, it depends on the situation. Sometimes a touch on the arm or handshake is enough.

Nick said...

Cheerful Monk - This seems to be the general refrain from commenters. I shall bear it in mind. I like the sympathy card gaffe. People just don't realise what they're saying until it's too late!

Secret Agent - As I just said! Presumably he meant your brother had had a hard time and that was now over with, but that's not how it came across....

Grannymar - Yes, I guess that's often enough.

Rummuser said...

I guess that the body language should convey that the grief is shared. I have also avoided going when I knew that it would be difficult to convey the emotion.

Roses said...

I've had my fair share of death and grief. I think Macy's right though, unless you do a complete gaff, the friends and rellies, won't remember.

If you have the time, send a card a couple of months down the line and say how much you thought of the person who died and that you miss them (if it's true, obv).

In my experience it's the months immediately after the funeral which are the hardest and frankly, that's when the grieving need the support.

Of course it's hard dealing with someone's grief and sadness. And actually, I think it's fine to say 'look, I don't know whether this is wanted/needed/or appropriate, but I was thinking of [person] and I wanted you to know I was thinking of you too.'

Nick said...

Ramana - Hadn't thought about that. Yes, I guess body language can be a giveaway if your condolences are not genuine.

Roses - Good idea about sending a card a couple of months later, when the immediate rush of sympathetic calls and visits has tailed off.

Val said...

Think of someone you absolutely love so much that you can't imagine ever being without them. Now imagine that suddenly they are gone, you will never see them again, they have vanished and actually you can't understand it (because when you lose someone really really close to you, that's what it feels like - it feels like something horrendously unnatural and something you just can't get your head around. One minute the person exists, the next they don't. Then when you've got that emotion going on, imagine people have suddenly appeared on the scene. bearing in mind that you're not tuned in to anything other than your loss, what would you like them to say to you? If you can think of that, then you can probably think of what to say to other people. The problem is that until you've lost someone close to you, it's impossible to understand the experience. Truly.

I've lost all my grandparents and both my parents.

What did I want people to say to me? I wanted them to say "I don't know what you're going through, and I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm still here for you." Unfortunately a lot of people are so embarrassed by another's loss that they go away too. Many friendships break after a death. In some ways, that's as sad as the original loss.

e said...

I've lost parents, grands, cousins, friends and colleagues. While it never easy, showing up helps. So does sending a greeting to the grieving several months after the funeral.

Nick said...

Val - A lot of good advice there, thanks for that. Yes, imagining yourself in the relative's place and asking yourself what you would want from other people is a useful exercise.

e - Sending a greeting a few months later is a good idea, to show you haven't forgotten them and are still aware of their loss.

Ursula said...

I totally agree with Grannymar's comment. A touch, a handshake, a look into the grieving's eye. An expression of our humanity. For once, just for once: NO words needed.

As to Val's moving comment: She writes from that side of the fence that any of us dread having to climb over. And you will have to. Unless you trip up the ladder first.

U

Nick said...

Ursula - I've had a lot of really good advice here. That's helpful too, the idea that some sympathetic body language is all that's needed, words don't matter so much.

conortje said...

hehe I just LOVE WWW's front light experience - I can picture it so well. Priceless!

Nick said...

Conor - Now I'll end up thinking of dimmer lights at the next funeral I go to....

secret agent woman said...

Except my brother was 23, healthy as a horse and died in a drowning accident. There's no excusing away that sort of idiotic funeral comment.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - Ah, I see. In that case, yes, a completely stupid comment to make. What was he thinking of?

blackwatertown said...

What Miss Scarlet or Speccy said.
But just being there is worthwhile even if you have nothing to say.

Nick said...

Blackwater - I usually try to avoid saying anything, but the condolence queue rather excluded that option.

herschelian said...

At a Jewish funeral the custom is for mourners to say to each family member 'I wish you long life'. It makes it so much easier knowing exactly what you have to say. The whole event is very much structured and by just copying others you will be behaving appropriately.

Nick said...

Herschelian - Hey, long time no see! A standard phrase like that certainly avoids all the awkward hesitations. And if you want to say something more personal, presumably that's fine too.

Liz said...

I don't think you have to say anything. Just being there says enough.

Seeing people for the first time after a death is always difficult because you feel this need to say something but death is just crappy for everyone so there's nothing to say really.

Nick said...

Liz - I notice several of you are agreed on that. I guess you're right that whatever you say just washes over those who're grieving, so it doesn't really matter what it is (as long as it's not totally inane).